What’s so funny about three sisters bent on committing suicide? Plenty, in the imagination of Judith Claire Mitchell.
Mitchell, a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, is an English professor and director of the master’s of fine arts creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her first novel was The Last Days of the War, a love story filled with facts about the 1915 Armenian massacres. In A Reunion of Ghosts, the author returns to basing her fiction on fact, with the fictional Alter family haunted by the legacy of the sisters’ great-grandfather, who developed the murderous chlorine gas Germany unleashed in World War I.
The novel’s fictional great-grandparents are closely based on real-life inventor Fritz Haber and his wife, Clara. He was honored for his work on man-made nitrogen fertilizer, but Clara, a brilliant chemist in her own right, withered under the responsibilities of motherhood in the shadow of her famous husband. She killed herself in protest over his work in gas warfare.
The Alter sisters’ story opens with a tattoo that the youngest, Delph, has around her calf. At first glance it “looks like a serpentine chain, but stand closer and it’s actually sixty-seven tiny letters and symbols that form a sentence — a curse: the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the 3rd and 4th generations.”
The novel is a long, darkly witty suicide note set near the dawn of 2000. Themes include the pleasures and burdens of family, women in academia, romantic love, introversion and religion.
Mitchell offers a family tree to help sort out who’s who in the fictional family. There’s also a chart identifying the circumstances of the six who committed suicide between 1915 and 1975 and a list of the names mentioned in the book, with several real historical figures highlighted in bold (hello, Albert Einstein, Son of Sam and Frank Zappa).
An author’s note emphasizes that the Alter sisters are not intended to resemble real persons, but the fictional sisters certainly ring true; they have human foibles and flaws that can be fatal.
The sisters’ father, Natan Frankl, abandoned his family when daughters Lady, Vee and Delph were children, leaving the girls with little more than his love for puns. The sisters ditched his surname in favor of their matronymic, Alter, “and Delph repeatedly described the name change as no big deal, just a slight Alter-ation, you can’t punish her for being punnish. … In no other way did he provide for us or, apparently, care about us. In fact, you might say that Frankl, our dad, didn’t give a damn.”
Lady’s three suicide attempts are chronicled; in one of them she attempts to hang herself from a pipe in their New York apartment building’s basement. The rusty pipe collapses under her weight, resulting in a mess that prompts Lady to predict: “Someday this will be funny.”
Vee’s story echoes her great-grandmother’s struggle with prejudice against women. Despite generations of advancements in women’s rights, Vee sits in a 1970s English class at Columbia, “where the professor, forced to admit Barnard women for the first time, refused to call on said women, thus reasserting the masculine hegemony, or as we put it back then, his male chauvinist piggery.” Vee’s life story takes especially tragic turns.
The deeply introverted Delph’s misery is summarized while she is getting the tattoo. A friend tells the tattoo artist that while her great-grandfather was a “notorious loudmouth,” Delph has “trouble talking in front of people she doesn’t know.” The Alter sisters cannot catch a break, he says, prompting comparisons to the Kennedys.
Perhaps the central plot question is whether the sisters will save each other. Hope floats on several passages, including one in which they realize that killing themselves means they’ll never learn to stop “deflecting important conversations with jokes.”
“We’d lived our lives like perpetual children, hiding in corners, never knowing what to say, never knowing what to do. If our plan to die was problematic, it was problematic in that it eliminated the possibility of our ever becoming serious, capable women.” Mitchell understands that the failure to live up to that potential is no joke.